The Evolution and Devolution of The Sims
In the 1990s and early 2000s the Simulation genre was at its peak. Companies like Impressions Games were the kings of the genre, releasing hit after hit with Caesar III, Pharaoh & Cleopatra, Zeus & Poseidon, and finally Emperor. People around the world were glued to their screens in complex city building hypnosis. A close friend denied herself a full night of sleep in order to stock her pyramid with 200,000 luxury goods and I myself spent many a day and sleepless evening helping my little pixelated people live better lives. The time management skills and attention to detail cultivated by these games have stuck with me to this day. The intricacies and details were what made them special.
When The Sims was released in 2000 with little fanfare it initially received nothing but a cursory glance. Little people in a dollhouse? No interest. However, the same zealous enjoyment shown by my pyramid building friend appeared again in my sister, but many times over. She was rabid about this game, and I couldn’t not have a look at what the fuss was all about.
So I gave the game a spin.
Wow. How did I not know this was what I had been wanting? A management game so focused, so microcosmic, it was like nothing I had expected. While other simulation games were trying to cram more and more into more intricate experiences, The Sims swept all of that away and distilled it all down to a family in a suburban house. Pleasantville, so to speak. Compelling, amusing and strangely addictive.
I was hooked.
My inner architect was fed. My inner homemaker happy. My inner comedian and sadist also. Within the limits of the game, I could mess around with these digital humans as much as could dream. There was only so much to be done in the game with so little content, but that was soon fixed with expansions and custom content. Soon, the game grew and grew until it started to resemble my life, or my ideal of it. As close as I could possibly get to that ideal, in any sense.
You see, games had not done this for me in the past. I was tired of fantasy and science fiction tropes. I was stuck in a rut of RPG grinding, having games and my gaming progression dictated to me by the closed narrative of developers. Finally, I had gaming freedom.
Sadly, life got in the way and I soon moved on, all but forgetting about my gaming hobby. My gaming was reduced to a few minutes here and there on PlayStation between jobs in a rural Japanese city.
Then along came The Sims 2. Once again I was blown away, only this time due to the brilliant way Maxis had expanded on the original concept. Not content with raising a mother, father and children in a ‘50s suburban environment, this time we had birth, life, age and death thrown into the mix. Adding generation and family play to an already well-secured base of life and community simulation was genius. Now gamers built their families as dynasties, continuing the legacy and branching out into the town. Town creation was possible from the ground up, adding more creativity into the mix. Here was a game that catered to family players, generational players, builders, deviants and, most importantly to me, the colony players.
I would start with a blank map and a sole sim. Move them in, send them off to work, have then progress and breed, building the town with the generations. Before long the family ruled the town. They were the founders.
This was further enhanced by the addition of The Sims 2 Open for Business, arguably the best addition to the franchise to date. With this expansion I was able to make any content in the game useful, no matter how useless or unappealing to me. I had flower shops, restaurants, electronic stores, pancake parlours, department stores, you name it, I made it.
I had my eyes turned to The Sims 3, knowing that I would have my detailed simulation play and life management games rolled into one new shiny package, with upgraded technologies. The future was bright. Soon, with the announcement of the open world structure of the game, along with further announcements of the ability to customize any item, I was very excited, thinking I would be able to build my dream town and rear its inhabitants, no longer confined by the restrictions of colour, space and limitations.
Unfortunately, as those of you who play it may attest to, it wasn’t what we received and I was sadly let down. Pack after pack was released, with monthly updates of decorative content. There was always the promise of greatness. With the base game, eleven expansion packs, nine stuff packs, eleven world packs and sixty-three months of DLC, all these additions could not hide the fact that the foundation of the game, the core experience, was cutting corners. This production ethic caused the game to never be able to evolve passed its crippling restrictions. The sims were shadows of their TS2 counterparts. There was no functional retail system. Simulation aspects had been scaled back in order to make the game as pretty as possible. And pretty it was, but that was all.
Programming-wise the game was ugly. It clearly wasn’t built to hold all the content it received. It was hampered by a klutzy installation foundation, content duplication and jarring programming clashes. Any poking around in the coding and the spaghetti could clearly be seen, along with the fact that, to be honest, some of the people responsible shouldn’t have been permitted in there in the first place. It was sloppy.
It was also frustrating to watch a great game series begin to devolve and wallow around its own greed. Content! More Content! Money! More Money! “Less effort into more content for more money” seemed to be the motto. The game was broken, and was further broken with each and every release. Gamers hung on the for the promise of a great life simulator with all the creative options promised, but only delivered on the surface. Sadly, it ended its gaming cycle still shallow, despite a squillion pieces of content thrown over it like a picnic rug on patchy grass.
And then came The Sims 4, the biggest backpedal in the history of gaming. Gone was the suburban feeling, the open world, the NPCs, the customization, the dynamic aging and differences in age groups. Gone were the toddlers, the cars, the business lots. Gone is a pleasant yet semi-realistic art style. There is so much missing from the core of this game that I don’t even know where to begin. It has no soul and no amount of additional content will fix it.
Basically, the game was gutted and replaced with an eerily grinning wax mannequin version of its predecessors. I am not sorry to repeat my opinion that the game is the result of one bad and misinformed business decision after another. It hasn’t been the commercial success of its previous iterations and has, in fact, done very little but divide the community so carefully reared on fifteen years of gaming history with the franchise.
What happened to the attention, realism and duty of the Sims in its early years? How did the dedication and TLC of the designers devolve into such a churning conveyor belt of inferior product? Are the bigwigs of the company to blame? Or is the focus of the game too designed to appeal to a target demographic, despite the damage it may cause to its long term fan base? Whatever the cause, a solution is needed as they are very close to killing the genre entirely. The Sims Medieval, SimCity 2013 and The Sims 4 have all been poorly conceived and shallow titles.
The Sims 4 is a “Batman and Robin” style of bad quality. The game designers are Joel Schumacher in drag. It is such a shame to watch. And sadly, since Maxis is chained to the EA juggernaut, there is no reason to hope another company will come forward to fill the life simulation slot with a great game, injecting the drive of competition into the listless husk of Maxis.
The Sims is dead. Long live The Sims.